By Mikaela Shea
Willie and Herman leaned against the fence, watching the horses whinny and swat flies away with their tails. The sun shone straight down, making the trees, the wildflower-sprinkled hills, the cornfields and even the dirt road appear a shade lighter than usual.
“Bet you can’t ride that crazy horse up yonder and back without your pa seeing you,” Herman said.
“Bet I can,” Willie said.
“Go on then.”
“I don’t much feel like riding right now,” Willie said, scratching his ear, which stuck our further than most. “Too hot.”
“You goop. You’re scared you’re gonna feel the crack of your pa’s whip.”
Willie shoved Herman, because even though he was a few inches shorter, his push was enough to make Herman fall on his rear end in the dirt. Before he could react, Willie hopped on the bareback horse, grabbing onto the reins for dear life as the horse bound into the meadow. He bounced high with every gallop, his black hair springing up and down to the beat of the horse’s hooves. Willie’s laughter echoed against the barn. His pa hardly ever let him ride Dolly. “She’s too wild and can’t be trusted,” he’d always say. If only you could see me riding now without whipping my hide, Pa! Willie thought.
The horse leapt over a divot in the ground and Willie nearly bounced right off. He gasped but held tight to the reins to center himself again. I’m gonna fall off. I’m gonna fall off. Willie laced his fingers and the reins in the horse’s brown mane, leaning his body against its neck and squeezing his legs against the muscles of the horse’s torso. When they finally returned to the stable, Willie hopped off, panting and sweating with wobbling legs.
“There…you bonehead. Told you I could…do it,” Willie said between breaths. “Now you gotta do something I tell you.”
“No. I ain’t gonna do nothing.”
“Fine. Then Lena Stillinger gets to be my girl.”
“Hell and high water! She’s mine!”
Lena Stillinger was twelve, a year older than the both of them, and just a little taller than Willie himself. He often wished to pull her braid, just to feel if her blond hair was as soft as it looked. During the summer, he really only saw Lena at church or at town picnics. The Stillingers lived just outside of Villisca, Iowa.
“She ain’t neither of ours yet, but if you don’t…hmmm…” Willie said, thinking. A wide grin spread slowly across his freckled face. “You gotta do one chore for me.”
“This is ratty. You got to ride a horse and now I have to do your chores?”
Willie started toward the front steps of his house. “Fine. See you Sunday when I ask Lena to be my girl. ‘Cause if you do, I’ll sock you in the gut.”
“O-okay, I’ll…I guess I’ll do it then. But then I’m gonna do more than ask Lena to be my girl. I’m gonna touch her bubbies.”
“The hell you are, you weisenheimer. You can either clean the floor of the horse stable or gather the eggs from the chicken coop.”
“That’s easy. I’ll get the eggs.”
Willie grabbed a basket from the porch and handed it to Herman, snickering as Herman disappeared inside the coop. Willie went inside the stable and began shoveling out the manure. He could hear the chickens clucking loudly as the stranger reached under them and snatched their eggs.
Herman was a little taller than Willie, but as scrawny as a pitchfork and Willie had an easy time getting Herman to do what he wanted him to do. All Willie had to do was intimidate him.
A few minutes later, Herman came into the stable with a basket full of brown eggs and a couple feathers in his hair. “Does your pa make you check the eggs?” Willie asked, resting his shovel against a wall.
“Katherine gets the eggs. It’s a girl chore. So, I don’t know nothing about checking eggs.”
“Well, my pa says to touch the egg to the back of your neck and if it’s cold, it ain’t no good. So turn around. I’ll show you.”
“Okay…” Herman spun around slowly. “It feels…pretty warm, I guess.” Willie raised the egg and smashed it over Herman’s head before dropping another into the seat of Herman’s trousers and pushing him down into the pile of horse manure.
Egg yolk dripped into Herman’s mouth, which hung open in shock. “Wh-why? Why would you go and do that?” The golden slime and shells slid off of his brown hair and onto his shirt.
Willie bent over, hands on his knees, and howled with laughter. “You’re swimming in shit!”
“Ah, what a humdinger!” Herman shouted. “My ma is gonna have me by the ear. My ear’s gonna be sticking out like yours by the time she’s done with me, you goddamn louse!” He stood up and shook his trousers until the other smashed egg plopped onto the stable floor. Manure stuck to his trousers and the back of his legs as he walked past Willie with a scowl on his gaunt face.
“God almighty, you stink like you ain’t had a bath in two moons!”
“Ah, lay off.”
Willie continued laughing as Herman walked toward the dirt road in the opposite direction of his house. “Where you going, smelly?”
“To the river. And don’t follow me.”
“Well, you better get dolled up for the Children’s Day program tomorrow. I bet Lena’ll be there and you have to make up for your scrawniness somehow.”
“And you better have your mama sew them big ears to your head or Lena ain’t gonna do nothing but laugh at you,” Herman called over his shoulder, egg yolk dangling from his hair.
The next day, Willie put on his Sunday best: black trouser shorts, a white button up shirt, and a matching black suit jacket. It was far too hot outside for long sleeves, but it was his only nice outfit, and the last time he complained, his ma had made him wear an apron and take over most of her daily chores, including making the beds, clearing the table, and washing the dishes. He felt like such a sissy! That certainly wouldn’t happen again if he could help it. He’d wear his Sunday best every day if he had to!
Herman’s mom, Sarah Moore, led the Children’s Day program every summer. Willie hated singing and reading the Bible in front of a crowd of smiling parents and smirking teenagers, but at least Lena would be there. She came every year. He was sure she liked him and not Herman; her cheeks always got red as apples when he talked to her and she hardly ever looked at him directly with her honey-brown eyes.
Willie walked with his parents and little sister to the church, which was just up the road. “I’m glad it’s not too hot out tonight.”
“Me too, son. We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.” His pa patted him on the shoulder. “You memorize your verse for tonight?”
“Good boy. You gonna watch your big brother, May?” Willie’s little sister nodded, her fire-red hair gleaming in the setting sun.
When they arrived, the children had gathered in one part of the churchyard while the audience sat in the chairs and benches spread across the grass. Willie looked for Lena and saw that she was talking to Herman and giggling. Her yellow church dress was almost the same color as her hair, a blue ribbon laced into her braid. Willie hurried over to them.
“Evening, Lena,” he said. “You dolled up real nice today.”
Lena giggled and looked at the ground. “Thank you, Willie. You look—I think you look nice too.” Herman looked at Willie and scowled. Willie ignored him and looked at Lena again.
“Well, I’ve been practicing the songs all week.”
“I can’t remember them too good. Mind if I stand by you so I can follow your lead?” Lena nodded her head vigorously.
The kids stood in three lines on the grass while Mrs. Moore directed their songs. Sweat formed on Willie’s face when he saw the crowd. It seemed as if the entire town were staring back at him. When he found where his family sat, his ma smiled at him and May waved.
Willie couldn’t help but look over at Lena as they sang “Jesus Loves Me.” Her voice sounded to him like the way maple syrup tasted — sweet, smooth, and thick. Willie watched her pink lips opening and closing as she sang and wondered how much longer he’d have to wait to kiss them. Lena glanced over at him and they both looked away, and this time, he felt his own cheeks get hot—he realized he’d forgotten to sing.
After they finished singing, it was practically dark, so many lanterns were lit before Bible verses were recited. Willie went last. He cleared his throat. “Ephesians chapter six, verses 10 to 18.” He paused and looked out at the crowd, but all the faces were shadowed in the eerie glow of the lanterns. He couldn’t see his family anymore. In the place where they’d been sitting before, he saw some figures, but they could have been anybody.
The only person he could make out was Reverend Kelly, a traveling preacher from England. He sat by a lamp, which illuminated his sharp cheekbones and pointy nose, his sagging mouth formed into a smirk. And those beady eyes. Willie didn’t like the way he’d seen those eyes following Lena around earlier in the night.
Willie’s voice came out shaky. Locusts screeched in the trees as if they were laughing at him. “F-finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full a-armor of God so that…so that you can take your stand against – uh, against the d-devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against the…flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this d-dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms. Therefore…put on the full armor of God, that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Willie forced a smile when he’d finished and wiped his sweaty palms on his shorts. Mrs. Moore walked over to him and patted him on the shoulder.
“Well, everybody. That concludes this year’s Children’s Day program. We hope you enjoyed yourselves. See you all next Sunday and good night.” Brief goodbyes were said and lanterns began disappearing as people walked and rode their horses home. The churchyard grew darker and darker.
Willie’s family walked home with the Moores, the adults in front talking about Mr. Moore’s John Deere business and the many children trailing behind them.
“Why are Lena and Ina walking home with us?” Willie asked Herman.
“They’re sleeping at our house tonight,” he said, wiggling his bushy eyebrows. Willie wanted to take the smile off of Herman’s face with a good slug, but he just clenched his teeth and took a deep breath in through his nose. “And guess what?” Herman whispered, “I’m gonna kiss Lena tonight when my ma and pa go to bed.”
“She ain’t gonna kiss you, wisenheimer. She likes me, I know it.”
“We’ll see. I’ll come outside tomorrow morning to brag to you about how soft Lena’s lips are.” Willie gave Herman a good shove before he stopped walking and waited for Lena to catch up. She was lagging behind everyone else, humming one of the hymns they’d sung at the program.
“Hi, Lena. You sung nice tonight.”
“Thanks, Willie. You too.”
“Why are you walking all alone?”
“I was just thinking and wishing I could see the stars. It’s so cloudy and dark tonight.”
“Yup,” Willie said, noticing the fog settling on the ground and shrouding the lantern his pa carried. “So…since you’re staying with the Moores tonight, maybe in the morning we can walk to the river or something.”
“Yeah, that would be real fun.”
Willie relaxed. There was no way Herman was getting a kiss from Lena. They walked in silence for a while, listening to Mrs. Moore talk about all the laundry she had to do in the morning.
When they reached their homes, Willie grabbed Lena’s hand and kissed her on the cheek before everyone began turning around to exchange goodbyes and goodnights. Lena’s eyes got big and a smile grew on her face. Her hand reached for her cheek and the gold ring on her pointer finger reflected the Moores’ lamp.
Willie stood on the porch and watched as Lena disappeared inside the Moores’ house.
The slightest creaking noise drifted into Willie’s open window and startled him awake. He peered outside and could hardly see anything—it was still so cloudy. What time is it? Willie wondered. He sat watching for a minute and as the clouds parted across the moon like curtains, he saw a tall figure walking from the Moores’ shed and disappear behind the house. Looks like Mr. Moore forgot a chore again, Willie thought before lying in bed and drifting into a dream about him and Lena running through piles of haystacks.
Willie awoke again to his little sister pinching his arm. He opened his eyes and saw the dim morning light coming through his window. “Cut it out, will ya, May?” he said, rubbing his arm.
“Ma says time to get up. Chore time.” May’s hair was knotted and frizzed out like a fireball.
Willie put on his overalls, leaving one strap undone, and walked through the kitchen to the side door. “No breakfast?” his ma asked.
“No, ma’am. Not hungry yet.”
His eyes were still half shut as he opened the chicken coop and they strutted out all at once as if they’d been cooped up for days instead of mere hours. Their clucks filled the unusually silent morning. Then Willie remembered he’d be seeing Lena soon and pumped the well, washing his face with cold water. After he’d gathered the eggs and fed the horses, Willie stood and stared at the Moores’ house. The sun was burning down on him now and they still weren’t moving. Any other day, Mr. Moore and Herman would be outside doing chores by now.
Willie went inside and his ma fixed him a plate for breakfast. “You’ve eaten enough for two grown men,” she said. Willie nodded. He’d eaten four slices of bacon, three eggs, fried potatoes, and drank two glasses of milk. Afterward, he let May chase him around the house for a while before he went back outside to see if the Moores had risen.
It was already almost a quarter past eight and the curtains hadn’t even been parted yet. Somethin’ ain’t right, Willie thought.
Mrs. Peckham, the older woman who lived next door to the Moores’, paced around the Moores’ yard. Willie saw that she’d let out their chickens. Suddenly, Mr. Moore’s brother, Ross, pulled up in his horse and buggy. Willie watched him try to look in various windows around the house, but they were all covered, so he started tapping, then pounding on the door. Willie had walked up to the edge of the road. Ross pulled out some keys and let himself inside. Willie relaxed a little.
They’re not home. Clearly they left early for some reason. Maybe they went on an errand. Maybe they took Lena and Ina home. Damn!
But then Ross came out less than two minutes later sobbing before he leaned over the porch and dry heaved. “Mrs. Peckham,” he gasped, “Call the sheriff.” Willie started shivering, despite the thick humidity and his heart sunk. What happened in there?
Mrs. Peckham hurried next door to her farmhouse and Ross walked to a spot in the grass and plopped down, holding his head and sobbing.
He didn’t notice when Willie ran across the road, right past him, and went through the open front door. The parlor, the first room of the house, was perfectly in order. Not a thing out of place. Not a table undusted. Not a pair of shoes left on the floor. Then Willie walked toward the bedroom where the Moores’ guests slept. As soon as he entered the room, he saw the sheets pulled up over two lumps. Are they sleeping?
But when Willie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw their faces were covered by the sheets and caked with blood. He tried to scream, but nothing came out. He couldn’t look away. The bigger body, on the right side of the mattress. It had to be Lena. An arm was hanging out from under the sheet, a gold ring on her pointer finger, just like Lena’s. It was becoming impossible to breathe. The house was so stuffy. The odor seeped in through his mouth every time he inhaled. He heard the flies buzzing.
I gotta be sure. I gotta be sure I’m not dreaming!
Willie’s legs crumbled beneath him and he crawled over to the bed and pulled the crusted sheet back. He covered his mouth. The musty, metallic, rotting smell reached his nose. The heads were so bloody and caved in, their brains and skulls were spread across their pillows, the headboard, the wall.
Where were the lips he’d wanted to kiss so badly? She was unrecognizable but he knew the one on the right was Lena.
And she was farther down in the bed, which meant she’d squirmed.
And her hands were bloody and mutilated, which meant she’d fought back.
And her nightgown was pulled up and her…her underwear were off, which meant… Is that what it meant?
And he didn’t want to see that part of her. Not like that!
Willie started retching, became blinded by his own tears as he ran out, almost tripping over the bloody axe that lay near the foot of the bed. He couldn’t see where he was going and bumped into a table, sending a vase crashing to the floor. He didn’t need to go upstairs where Herman slept. He already knew.
Mikaela Shea is in her thesis hours of her MFA at Columbia College Chicago and is currently a writer-in-residence at Ragdale Foundation. She has published stories in Midwestern Gothic, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Hypertext Magazine, Paragraph Planet, Columbia College’s annual Story Week Reader, as well as a children’s book at the State Historical Society of Iowa. Mikaela is currently writing a novel and is Editor-in-Chief of 3Elements Review. www.mikaelashea.com.